The Internet is about to radically change, and hardly anyone knows it.
Think about it like a phone system: The Internet operates on just a handful of top-level domains (TLDs) — like .com and .org — that function like area codes. Right now, the internet needs more of them. And pretty soon it’s going to thousands of them: .law, .house, .gay, .soccer, pretty much anything you can think of. But that’s not the radical part. See, unlike area codes, TLDs need someone to run them — and the saga of .art is a microcosm of what that might mean for the artistic community, and for the Internet itself.
Think about this for a second and experience the sensation of your mind boggling: Who operates the Internet? Like, who runs the servers that run this very website you’re looking at right now? Ever thought about that?
As it happens, the answer is VeriSign, the company that administers .com and .net, among other TLDs. And up until now, you’ve never had a reason to give a shit. That’s because VeriSign maintains a pretty hands-off approach to administering the Internet, particularly in regard to registering domains — basically, if you want it, it’s not taken and you’re willing to pay for it, it’s yours. We call that an open registry, and that’s pretty much how it’s been since the beginning.
And open registration may be the case for .art or any number of these new TLDs, too — but it’s likely it won’t. It’ll all depend on ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the U.S. government-assembled bureaucracy for managing the Internet, which will decide — very soon — who gets to run them. And some of them are hotly contested. No fewer than 10 bidders have thrown in their hats to run .art, making it the third-most contested new TLD proposed, and at an $185,000 pricetag just to apply for the privilege, it’s not hard to imagine the stakes are high.
Some of these companies — like Donuts, a financing group applying for over 300 TLDs, including .art — propose to run open registries much like VeriSign. But the thing is, according to ICANN’s guidelines on how they’ll do the dole, Donuts is not likely to get it — nor are the other seven strictly commercial applicants. That’s because ICANN has pledged to give priority to so-called “community” applicants, organizations by and for members of a specific community, which would in turn be served by its members’ ownership of the TLD in question.
“How do you decide who’s in or out? That’s a very complicated thing. You’re not going to give Picasso.art to just anybody, right?” So speculates Joshua Wattles, point-man for deviantART, a grassroots online artists’ community of over 26 million users, headquartered in Los Angeles. “But we feel if there’s a community that would respond to this TLD and treat it with respect, deviantART is that.”
Wattles frames Dadotart’s bid in terms of domain integrity — if the domain is .art, then the criteria for using the domain should be that it’s in some way about art. “We’re only interested in selling to people who are interested in art, period,” says Wattles. “We believe that’s what gives the domain value–not that it’s going to point to someplace slogging bedclothes made out of Picasso pictures.”
Unlike deviantART, which provides a user interface to anyone who wants to participate, the New York City-based e-flux serves a professional network of major artists, galleries, and institutions like museums and biennials, compiling and distributing, in cooperation with its membership, a curated news digest with “information on some of the world’s most important contemporary art exhibitions, publications and symposia.”
“I am going to use the term elitist,” Wattles says in regard to e-flux, “but the arts are known for elitism.”
For his part, e-flux CEO Anton Vidokle doesn’t necessarily deny that claim. “We’re involved in a very particular part of the art community that has more to do with what society deems art as presented publicly by public institutions. But I do believe that art made by people for their own enjoyment is also very important. We represent a different part of the community.” But, Vidokle says, e-flux doesn’t intend to run .art that way.
In fact, the visions of Dadotart and e-Flux are strikingly similar. Both envision a rollout period designed to reserve the names of recognized artists and art institutions (for example, Louvre.art would be reserved for the Louvre) and invite those institutions to participate. After that, both would open up registration for anyone who wants to participate, provided they intend to do so as artists. How they’ll make that determination is less definitive.
“If you want to call yourself an artist, that’s great, and we should enable that,” says Wattles. “On the other hand, if you’re going to call yourself an artist, then you should be an artist. We have a higher interest in the TLD being accurate.”
Vidokle echoes that sentiment: “We want it to be focused on art. We want it to be art-related, and we would like to keep completely extraneous commercial concerns out of it. If you want to call yourself an artist there is no way for me to verify that you are not. That’s the beauty of art. But if you’re using this space to sell secondhand cars, then we may contact you and have a talk with you. What’s important is a reliable and trustworthy source of information.”
And while both are focused on integrity, both acknowledge that the question of exactly how you maintain integrity is a difficult one. “We’re not going to be art police running around and shit,” says Wattles, “but we’re going to ask you to make a declaration that you’re going to present art or show art, and then we’ll take your word for it.” But Wattles also says that, like deviantART, Dadotart might advance, say, an anti-pornography policy. Which would take into account that art often deals with mature images, language and themes, but (if deviantART’s current etiquette policy is any indication) would largely leave the definitional criteria to a governing committee, albeit a governing committee made up of presumably open and sympathetic members of the art community. And e-flux has concerns of its own, says Vidokle, such as who should get ownership of generic-term second-level domains like, say, painting.art.
The more important issue, both communities argue, is that that determination be left to actual artist communities. In fact, for all their differences, both Wattles and Vidokle emphasize that that both communities would much rather see the other one get it than any of the other eight for-profit applicants. That, they both say, would be the real tragedy.
Nevertheless, while neither organization seems to have particular interest in deciding what is and is not art as it relates to things purported to be art, even the concept of a set of standards to govern what gets in and what doesn’t raises interesting questions the internet hasn’t had to deal with thus far — questions that get to the heart of the very nature of the internet.
“We recognize some applicants seek to address harms by constraining access to the registration of second-level names. However, we believe attempts to limit abuse by limiting registrant eligibility is unnecessarily restrictive and harms users by denying access to many legitimate registrants,” Donuts remarks in its own application.
“In a way it’s categorically different from the way names are administered up until now,” Vidokle admits. “It’s a more reliable, more rational, more organized Internet.”
In other words, it’s a brave new world.